Above is a scene from the MAS*H episode “Run for the Money.” Charles Emerson Winchester III has taken notice of a wounded soldier who is constantly degraded by his commanding officer and fellow comrades for his stuttering. Rather than argue back with those poking fun, he buries his nose into comic books because why should he read anything else? He’s been called a dummy for so long that he considers himself exactly that. Enter Winchester, who notices that the soldier’s IQ is actually well above normal. This kid is no fool. While Winchester admits to reading some Captain Marvel, himself, he explains that comic books are these lesser stories, and he hands the soldier a beautiful copy of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. It, he continues, is something worthy of the kid’s intellect.
Reflexively, I rolled my eyes, pissed that what I consider to be my favorite sitcom of all time had made yet another crack on my beloved comic book medium–this was not the first in the show’s run. Comic books are an easy target, but MAS*H was supposed to be smarter than that. “Fuck you,” I said not so under my breath. But the more I thought about it, the more the bit made sense. I’m so used to these jokes coming from today’s entertainment, but this was a different time. With the episode airing in season eleven, the last of the series, and the Korean War ending in 1953, I’d place the time as the same year. What were comics like in the early 50s? What ideas were being explored? Did the themes found in DC’s Captain Marvel come anywhere close to those addressed in Melville’s maritime tome? Simply put, no.
The most popular comics in 1953 were under heavy scrutiny under the public’s eye–only a year later Fredric Wertham would publish his Seduction of the Innocent. Westerns, Romance, Crime, Horror. and War stories had taken dominance over shelf space, beating down the once successful superhero genre. Of course the men and women in tights still had their adventures, but the readership dropped tremendously during this time–the waning would wax once more come the 1960s.
These stories, while entertaining, did not offer much in terms of intellectual substance (strictly speaking for mainstream publications). Because of this, Charles’ dismissal and the frequent other quips can be forgiven because, well, they weren’t exactly off base. This stigma that comics were but pop drivel last for many, many years, surpassing even the moment in which they became far more than the preconceived notions. 1960s Marvel deserves a great majority of the credit for turning the wind-whipped tide as they started creating comics that were more relevant, such as continuing the ongoing discussion of racial inequality through X-Men.
Flash forward several decades to the present day, and the comics market looks a whole lot different. Today we see writers exploring concepts like String Theory in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers/New Avengers, conducting multi-year experiments on the downfall of humanity and the lengths we will go to in order to either aid or hinder the transformation in Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, to unearthing what it means, once we dig through the layers of public and private expectations, to be family and to care for those we love even when those we love hurt us the most in Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga, not only gender but racial and religious equality for “minorities” in G. Willow Wilson’s Ms. Marvel, and creators attempting to push LGBTQ characters past representations to the ultimate standing: characters.
Don’t get me wrong, the exploration of these aspects is by no means exclusive to the current month to month production; however, the degree to which we see them both quantitative and qualitative is.
Hickman brings up a phenomenal point in Secret Wars #1 when Rocket Raccoon states, “I do remember when comics were only a dollar. A dollar’s worth of crap!”
Clearly, there is some generalization, but for the most part he is spot on. We have transcended the age of comics as strictly entertainment and now find ourselves in an era where comics can be taken seriously because they take themselves seriously (or, when the story permits, they have the know-how to restrain seriousness to generate a higher level of sincerity).
As both an English Literature graduate and a lover of the comics medium, I’ve seen a grotesque number of attempts to draw a line between the two. Moby Dick stands in one corner, while Batman is cast to the opposite. But what happens when Neil Gaiman enters the ring with Sandman or years later Marvel drops a perfectly complex multiuniversal Avengers story on our asses–and don’t you discount the Warren Ellis Moon Knight they have tucked away for a rainy day. No longer is the winner as clear. Let oddsmakers struggle with their ratios, my bet’s on both.
When talking about our article plans for the week, several of the NBC! staff mentioned they were preparing to write a piece on comics coming down the pike. And that got me thinking. Fans tend to look to the past most often when the present and future is filled with nothing but dark skies. I think it is safe to store away the umbrella and retrieve the sun block. Meet me at the beach, won’t you?